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Ocean Currents

An Influx of Foreign Trash

The northern Bering Sea adds “foreign marine debris” to its long list of threats

ayaak_apr2020
ayaak (Sledge Island) © Austin Ahmasuk

This blog was written by Austin Ahmasuk, an Inupiaq from Nome, Alaska. He is a lifelong hunter, trapper and mariner, and serves his people as a tribal and marine advocate at Kawerak, a community-based organization in Nome.

It’s 2020, and those of us living in the north are confronting the unsettling ecological reality that the northern Bering Sea may be in the beginning stages of collapse. In the last few years, we’ve seen an increase in sea-bird die-offs, marine mammal strandings, pelagic fish moving north and threats from harmful algal blooms. Climate change and ocean warming are changing my Arctic homeland.

Despite the overall warming trend, a cold snap allowed ocean ice to grow to average levels last winter. I was even able to travel over the ice to ayaak (Sledge Island), something that I have not been able to do for more than a decade because of diminishing sea ice. Our family commemorates that winter trip over the ice to ayaak for a very important reason, the reason I am even here today, but that is another story.

Last winter, sea ice was prevalent and nanut (polar bears) travelled once again near my home. For a little while, this was the Arctic that I remember of my youth—and I was grateful to share it with my own boy. He was able, as I was, to sit inside nanuq tracks—just as I did when I was young—and imagine how big the bear that made those tracks must be.

But last winter’s cold snap didn’t last long. Our spring and summer arrived quickly, melt happened early and the warm times were on. And this year, they brought a different threat.

August 1 rolled around and on a trip intended for routine camp maintenance I found a curious-looking foreign dish soap bottle. The bears were curious about the soap bottle as well—they left their prints all around.

A discarded plastic shampoo bottle lies on a dark, sandy shore among polar bear tracks.
A foreign dish soap bottle surrounded by polar bear prints. © Austin Ahmasuk
Finding bits of foreign debris isn’t all that unusual here. There are normally some foreign curiosities in our pristine environment and shores, such as the glass floats that used to wash ashore that sit on my window sill. As I continued on to camp I found an odd-looking gallon-sized water jug. It was BPA-free and was a nice size for camp and not the kind our stores sell. More foreign gifts for us in the north, I thought.

But as I went further, I found more of this foreign debris … and more, and more. Curious things, like cardboard cartons that once carried aloe juice, but sadly also partially full petrochemicals that looked like spray lubricant, and an odd chemical-looking bottle that I dare not open.

After all was said and done, I had found a little mountain of trash and debris. It was clear this went well beyond the scattered bits and pieces of trash that might happen during an average year. In cleaning up the debris I felt like a first responder, except I didn’t feel good. Instead, I felt like an accomplice to a crime—as though during my years advocating for clean oceans to protect our Indigenous food security, I had lost sight of yet another reality: the increase in plastic debris in our ocean. Here was another threat I need to pay attention to.

A small pile of discarded plastic bottles.
Discarded foreign debris collected during a routine camp maintenance trip. © Austin Ahmasuk

As I write this, it has become clear that the debris I encountered was part of a huge debris event that stretched from the northern tip of the Seward Peninsula into eastern Norton Sound and Saint Lawrence Island, effectively making all of us in the Bering Strait region witnesses to our shores becoming littered.

It is August 25 and more debris continues to wash ashore. When will it end and who is culpable?

It’s already hard to keep pace with the scope and scale of changes that are affecting my Arctic home. Having to deal with an influx of foreign trash just adds insult to injury. I hope leaders in Alaska and in Washington are paying attention—and are ready to take action.

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